THIS FALL, Portland writer Dao Strom followed up her two books of fiction with a memoir, We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People. Strom's new book describes leaving Vietnam as a young girl during the Fall of Saigon, her parents' persecution for their work as writers, growing up in rural Northern California, and the conflicting identities it left her with. Here's what she told me about writing a book that's both a hybrid-text experiment (incorporating music and images) and a page-turning memoir.
MERCURY: When you began working on this, did you imagine it as a project with multiple elements, or did it grow into what it is now?
DAO STROM: I thought I was writing another novel, or I called it that, [but] I ended up starting to cut things up and taking fragments. One of the people I like is [author] W.G. Sebald, who incorporates photographs within text. So that was a big thing I was starting to play with, and then I was writing songs and there was someone along the way, who suggested I try writing songs about Vietnam, which I hadn't really thought about doing. So it organically came together... out of the frustration of the straight narrative not working.
The book seems to be, in part, a radical questioning of what you'd been taught—about everything from cultural history to how to approach writing.
The Western narrative has one hero. Or a triumph of the spirit. Or it has a redemption angle. And I was having a hard time writing that narrative. And that would have been more sellable, definitely, to the publishing houses, because it's a more identifiable narrative. And it kind of tells you what moral side to take, too... [but] every time I tried to write straight there would be these tangents, and I felt that was more in the spirit of whatever Vietnam is. It wants to have many voices and it wants to go in a lot of different directions.
It seems like there was also a questioning of your identity as a writer. Do you feel like when you came to the end, your idea of yourself as a writer and artist was different or had been altered in some way?
Well, being a writer—and a fiction writer especially—it is kind of like you're playing God, or claiming a certain authority. And if you're making a narrative, you're claiming that you are the authority of this narrative. Which is the same danger with history, or myth within a family, or a myth that you tell yourself. So I like to question those things, because I think they're worth questioning.